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Crime and punishment 

Some surprises in store in new dramas

For the most part, Hollywood has grown so inept at staging whodunits that it's a blessing to come across a film like Fracture, which lets audiences know from the outset that he-done-it.

The "he" in question is wealthy engineer Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins), who has just exacted his revenge on his cheating wife (Embeth Davidtz) by firing a bullet into her brain. With the identity of the villain in place, Fracture can then borrow a page from the Columbo playbook, by following the protagonist as he tries to piece together the details of the crime.

But the lawman in this picture is a far cry from Peter Falk's lovably rumbled detective from that classic 1970s TV series. In a role that Richard Gere might have played in past years (indeed, Fracture director Gregory Hoblit previously oversaw Gere in a similar part in 1996's Primal Fear), recent Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson) portrays Willy Beachum, a hotshot attorney who's used to winning and who agrees to prosecute Ted because, hey, the man has already signed a confession, right? But in his arrogance, Willy has underestimated Ted, and it's a disastrous move that might end up costing him his burgeoning career.

Fracture has its fair share of plotholes -- enough that you might be tempted to grab a shovel and a bag of cement mix -- but it features an exquisite cat-and-mouse game that makes it easier to overlook its flaws. And for once, here's a film in which it's not instantly obvious to predict every twist resting just over the horizon.

The film does grow flabby in the midsection thanks to a superfluous subplot involving Willy's romance with his new boss (Rosamund Pike), but once it gets back to focusing on business rather than pleasure, it straightens itself out.

Hopkins is solid in a role that occasionally veers toward Hannibal Lecter terrain, but it's Gosling who gooses the proceedings, allowing his character's expected arc from self-centered SOB to compassionate defender of justice to progress at a believable clip. More than anyone else involved with Fracture, he holds this thoughtful thriller together.

BUILDING UPON AN IMPRESSIVE indie career that (if there's any justice) should eventually earn him a special citation from the Independent Spirit Awards, Guy Pearce (Memento, The Proposition) adds another prickly personality to his resume, further revealing that here's a true actor who couldn't give a damn whether or not audiences warm up to his characters.

In First Snow, Pierce plays Jimmy, an unctuous salesman who passes the time while waiting for his car to be fixed by visiting a fortune teller (J.K. Simmons) off the side of a New Mexico highway. The palm reader's initial predictions (relating to a basketball game and a business venture) come true, so Jimmy is understandably upset when it's revealed that he won't live long after the first snow falls. Gripped by paranoia, Jimmy begins to plan his life solely around the notion that he will soon die, even as he attempts to do everything in his power to prevent his imminent death -- specifically, he tries to ascertain whether a disgruntled ex-employee (Rick Gonzalez) and his paroled ex-best friend (Shea Whigham) might pose immediate threats.

Writers Mark Fergus (also making his directorial debut) and Hawk Ostby both had a hand in the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Children of Men, so they clearly enjoy tackling weighty issues not usually explored in current thrillers (I can't see them contributing to, for example, Perfect Stranger). Here, they engage in a metaphysical debate concerning the ebb and flow between destiny and free will, and whether or not an individual's attempts to alter his life only end up limiting his choices even further.

The stages of Jimmy's breakdown and rebirth are gripping thanks to Pearce's intense performance, and there are notable supporting turns by Simmons (Spider-Man's J. Jonah Jameson) as the somber psychic and William Fichtner (in a rare good-guy role) as Jimmy's skeptical business associate. The subdued ending might disappoint those hoping for a more lively denouement, but really, it seems just right for a tale as chilly as this one.

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